Today's diary continues the examination of the philosophical discussions underlying the transformation in the arguments concerning poverty during the late 18th and 19th centuries. Last week we examined the discussion on the notion of the right of subsistence, today we look at Bentham's arguments on poverty, indigence and the provision of relief for the Poor.
With Bentham’s positions on Poor relief, the discussion shifts from the entitlement of the poor to subsistence to a discussion of eligibility for poor relief. While Bentham, like Locke, agrees that those who are infirm in mind and body are totally eligible for relief, the basis of the discussion is shifted away from the idea of a right of subsistence towards one in which who is eligible, the amount of relief and the conditions of relief become the central themes.
Unlike Locke, whose discussion on the right of subsistence required us to extrapolate from his arguments on Property, Bentham actually spent some time and effort analysing the notion of poverty and indigence and he wrote several things addressing Poor Relief and criticising the amendment to the Poor law passed in 1795-7 under Pitt (the younger). His criticisms of the 1795-7 Poor Law will be discussed when we examine the law itself.
While Bentham does recognise that even the industrious may face economic hardship from time to time (and deserve a temporary helping hand), he maintains as a general principle, that those who are unemployed are so essentially because they are idle or lazy. As a result, he seeks to place conditions on their receipt of relief and the manner in which they can obtain it.
Poverty and Indigence
Bentham begins his discussion by distinguishing between two fundamental things: poverty and indigence. According to Bentham, poverty (the state of having no recourse to property) is the general state of mankind. It is the fact that the vast majority of humanity does not own property that forces them to sell their labour to obtain their subsistence. Bentham never questions the fact that there are those who do have recourse to property, nor does he discuss how they came to be in this situation; he takes the fact that this is the situation as his starting point. Given that this is the case, he argues:
As labour is the source of wealth, so is poverty of labour. Banish poverty, you banish wealth: banish all those who are liable to become chargeable, you banish all those who are either disposed or qualified to become serviceable. If labour is liable to cease, so is property to be destroyed or spent [...] (Bentham, 1796, pp. 3-4).
As such, according to Bentham, since poverty is the natural and unchangeable lot of man (Bentham, 1796, p. 3), the proper subject is not the elimination of poverty, but rather the alleviation of indigence:
Indigence, therefore, and not poverty, is the evil, the removal of which constitutes the proper object of the Poor Laws. To banish poverty, is an attempt founded in inadvertence, and which, in the nature of things, must have either no effect or a bad one. Indigence may be provided for: mendacity may be extirpated: but to extirpate poverty would be to extirpate man (Bentham, 1796, p. 4).
Just from this statement, we can already see that Bentham would be opposed to provision of livestock to the poor in the effort to provide a better diet and opportunities for creation of additional products for sale (this was part of the 1795-7 Poor Law Amendment, termed the cow-money clause) as that will be giving property to those without it. In fact, anything which would provide property to the poor in the attempt to assist them out of their situation would be inherently incorrect for Bentham.
The natural, and only natural, source of the subsistence of every man who has it not in the shape of property in store, is obviously his own labour, at least in so far as it is adequate to the purpose. Whether in any and what respect this natural and primitive order of things ought, from views of general utility, to be broken in upon, is a question that will meet us in its proper place (p.5).
Types of individuals
Bentham divides the poor into categories as a basis for his examination on the eligibility of relief (in fact he draws a table and discusses whether their relief would be of short, long or permanent duration):
In respect to the degree of ability with regard to labour, compared with the necessary quantum of subsistence, the condition of man is susceptible of four very material distinctions: viz:
- Utter inability
- Inadequate ability
- Adequate (meaning simply adequate) ability
- extra-ability (Bentham, 1796, p.5).
Clearly, the majority of mankind fall into category 4 and Bentham argues that this is the general case, while the first three are exceptions to the general rule. Bentham argues that it is human labour that is the source of all created wealth:
The sum of the labour that has been exerted is the source of the whole stock of the matter of wealth (including that of subsistence) that either exists or ever did exist in the world, land in its unimproved states (covered or not covered with water) excepted (Bentham, 1796, p.5).
This is a very important point, we need to ensure that the creation of wealth remains uninterrupted as it is what ensures that society continues functioning.
Given this, Bentham turns his attentions over to the question of relief, discussing eligibility and the amount that should be made available to those in need of relief. Much of what you will read should be familiar to you as these arguments have been used recently in modern discussions on poverty, assistance and welfare, what you may not have realised is that Bentham was the original craftsman of these arguments.
Necessity of relief:
Happily Bentham does not believe that all relief should be denied which had actually been argued by people at the time. In fact he does justify relief given to those who if they do not receive it will perish immediately or gradually (through infirmity or disease):
In a civilised political community, it is neither consistent with common humanity, nor public security, than any individual should, for want of any of the necessaries of life, be left to perish outright (Bentham, 1796, p. 10).
Clearly there is no need to clarify the term common humanity. However, Bentham does explain why public security could be compromised if those who are facing the pain of immediate death are not given assistance, essentially, their desperation will force them to commit actions of "force or fraud" to ensure their survival (Bentham, 1796, p. 10).
To ensure that this relief is available in case it is needed (as conditions could arise where there may be a sudden need), Bentham argues that a public fund be established to meet the demand for relief as no private fund can ensure that the available supply of relief will be such to be consistent with potential demand (Bentham, 1796, p. 11).
Amount of Relief:
Bentham articulates a clear criterion for the determination of the amount of relief that can be given to those in need and whom are eligible:
The demand created by indigence, can never be said to extend beyond the absolute necessaries of life. For generally speaking the ability of whose who are maintained by their own labour, does little more than pass this limit: and beyond it there are no bounds (Bentham, 1796, p.6).
Bentham fears for the state of society if those who are given relief actually obtain more than the bare subsistence to ensure survival; this is a level of subsistence below that people could and would obtain if they actually worked as the notion of the subsistence wage in classical economics (i.e., Smith) viewed the wage as a social subsistence. Bentham is arguing that those on relief must receive less than that consistent with common humanity in the society at the time.
Position 16: If the condition of individuals, maintained without property of their own, by the labour of others, were rendered more eligible than that of persons maintained by their own labour, then, in proportion as the existence of this state of things were ascertained, individuals destitute of property would be continually withdrawing themselves from the class of persons maintained by their own labour, to the class of persons maintained by the labour of others; and the sort of idleness which at present is more or less confined to persons of independent fortunes, would thus extend itself, sooner or later, to every individual of the number of those on whose labour the perpetual reproduction of the perpetually consuming stock of subsistence depends: till at last there would be nobody left to labour at all, for any body (Bentham, 1796, p. 39).
He is convinced that society will in fact collapse as people clearly will never labour if they can avoid it. Bentham clearly believes that people are inherently lazy and prefer idleness and that if they can obtain their social subsistence without labour, they will do so. If people are not forced labour, there will no longer be the continual creation of commodities and the society and economy will collapse.
Pos 17: The destruction of society would therefore be the inevitable consequence, if the conditions of persons maintained at the public charge were in general rendered more eligible, upon the whole, than that of persons maintained at their own charge, those of the latter not excepted, whose condition is least eligible. (Bentham, 1796, p. 39).
It is the notion of lesser eligibility that forms the basis for the amount of relief and also the condition of people forced into the workhouse and is adopted as a template by the reformers behind the 1834 Poor Law Amendments. As such, the conditions in the workhouses and the amount received as relief must be worse than the normal conditions of labour and the level of wages received.
Conditions of Relief:
Returning to the original categories of the ability to labour, Bentham sets out to explain the conditions of relief. For those who are completely unable to work due to infirmity, relief should be granted without preconditions, as they will die without provision of relief. This is the case for those suffering from (columns I-IV in Bentham’s table), infirmity of mind and body (perpetual duration), children (long-continuing but of limited duration), and sickness and post-pregnancy while nursing (casual duration) (Bentham, 1796, p. 44).
However, for those in categories 2-3 (inadequate and adequate ability), Bentham argues that relief should only be administered in exchange for work (at whatever level the person is capable of doing. Clearly, this requires the creation of work-houses by the government to employ these people.
Pos 23: To a person possessed of adequate ability, no relief ought to be administered, but on condition of his performing work: to wit such a measure of work as, if employed to an ordinary degree of advantage will yield a return, adequate to the expense of relief (Bentham, 1796, pp 44-5).
He even provides some examples, here is my favourite:
A person deprived of all his limbs, or the use of all his limbs may still possess ability sufficient to the purpose of serving as an inspector to most kinds of work, so long as his mental faculties, and sight for observing, and voice for questioning are possessed by him in sufficient rigour (Bentham, 1796, p. 46-7).
Oddly enough, given that he argues that children should be eligible for relief without conditions as they fall into his category of those entitled to be taken care of, he then clarifies his position and argued the basis for forcing pauper children and orphans to work for their keep; it seems that relief without preconditions of labour just doesn’t exist, this always brings to mind Scrooge's lament when asked for a charitable donation in "A Christmas Carol", that is "are there no prisons are there no workhouses?":
Position 47: From the labour of a Minor, brought up and educated at the public charge, the public may, without injustice, hardship or even deviation from established law, or usage, reap the utmost profit that such labour can be made to yield, consistently with regard due, [...], to the health and permanent welfare of the individual, and that, from the period, whatever it may be, of his being taken under public care, until the expiration of his minority (Bentham, 1796, p. 53).
This then leaves us with the most common case of labour, number 4, that of extra-ordinary ability to labour. If a person with no limbs can be forced to labour for his relief, what then for those who are unemployed but with no physical or mental problems, but simply bad luck, a change in the economic situation, the introduction of machinery leading to unemployment or any other normal misfortune that can befall a worker? Again, the answer is obvious, you either earn your relief in the workhouses (or as Bentham terms them Houses of Industry) or you get no relief. So Bentham argues for the creation of these Houses of Industry by the government (as public money is needed to ensure continuity).
However, this leads to an obvious question, if we are going to build Houses of Industry and are going to force people to work to obtain relief, why do we not just create government industries and jobs and pay these workers at the social subsistence wage, why do we need to offer "relief" and pay below the socially accepted level of wages? Obviously, these jobs do not exist or people would happily be working in them as given the conditions in a workhouse, you would even be better off begging than to enter them. So, if we can create work in a work-house (whose products are then sold in the market) why not create real employment? This argument seems to forget that in an economy with large agricultural production, there is such a thing as seasonal unemployment and that those who are in need temporarily will have work available later in the year; wouldn’t an advocacy of better wages and differing forms of payment actually be of more use? Moreover, given that unemployment is almost a constant condition of the capitalist economic system at least for most people for some period of time and for many people for long periods of time, the amount that would need to be invested to create workhouses may be better spent to cover those in temporary need, provide work at the normal wage levels in a situation of economic crisis, and ensure the survival of those who simply are unable to find employment?
For the earlier diaries on this subject see:
Bentham, Jeremy, Writings on the Poor Laws, vol I, edited by Michael Quinn, Clarendon Press Oxford, 2001.
Bentham, Jeremy, (1796) "Essays on the Subject of the Poor Laws, Essay I and II," in Writings on the Poor Laws, Volume I, pp. 3-65.